On White Identity Politics and American Terrorism

On White Identity Politics and American Terrorism

On White Identity Politics and American Terrorism

We cannot move forward until white citizens claim their history. 


The Brooklyn Museum mounted an exhibit on white racial terrorism this summer. It draws on research done by the Equal Justice Initiative, documenting 4,425 lynchings of black people by white mobs between 1877 and 1950. The researchers found hundreds more of these public murders than we knew about previously, in dozens of counties. They charted it all on an interactive map.

You can stand in the quiet of the museum exhibit’s entryway and zoom in on each blood-red county. Twenty lynchings in Polk County, Florida, 29 in Jefferson County, Alabama, 10 in Calhoun County, Arkansas. I lingered on the Indiana-Kentucky border that my family migrated across after World War II. At one point in the 1920s, nearly a third of native-born white men in Indiana were in the Ku Klux Klan; the governor was among them. The poem that later became Billie Holiday’s haunting “Strange Fruit” was inspired by a 1930 photograph of a crowd of white Hoosiers in Grant County, Indiana, posing under the corpses of two black teenagers, aged 18 and 19, whom they had just lynched. So as I lingered over the map, I fixated on the geography of this terrorism. Was the violence on Indiana’s southern border a message to black families like mine, who were migrating out of the Kentucky coal mines and up toward Indianapolis’s industrial expansion?

“The demographic geography of this nation was shaped by racial terrorism,” author and activist Bryan Stevenson told me recently, in describing his team’s research at the Equal Justice Initiative. “Black people in Brooklyn, the black people in Chicago and Cleveland and Los Angeles, went to those cities not as immigrants, but as refugees and exiles from terror.” In Indiana, they were greeted with terror as well. Stevenson’s team documented more than 300 lynchings concentrated in eight Midwestern and Mid-Atlantic states—public spectacles like the one in Grant County, meant to tell families like mine that we were not welcome.

The Brooklyn Museum selected several works from its permanent collection to accompany the Equal Justice Initiative’s research. So as you move through the space—between video installations in which black people testify to the way racial terrorism shaped their family histories—you also watch Kara Walker, Rashid Johnson, Titus Kaphar, and other black artists wrestle with their relationship to this violence, to its legacy in black families, lives, and communities.

I left wondering if white people feel similarly bound to this history, similarly compelled to personalize it. Do they think about where their parents and grandparents were at the time mobs were hanging black bodies off of bridges, and leaving them there to rot as public testaments to shared values? Would they stand in front of that map and stare at the counties near their hometowns, or their parents’ and grandparents’ hometowns, and ask—as I inescapably did; as any black person intuitively would—what’s my connection to this terrorism?

“Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch.” This, of course, was President Donald Trump’s assertion in his impetuous press conference three days after a white-nationalist terror attack in Charlottesville. A week and a half later, as the rest of the country was praying for the people in Hurricane Harvey’s path, Trump pardoned former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio—the proud bigot who led a decades-long, criminal campaign to harass and abuse Latinos under the guise of law enforcement. And now, as the whole world focuses on the escalating brinkmanship on the Korean Peninsula and Irma’s path of destruction in the Caribbean, the White House is instead focused on making political examples of young immigrants who have already proven themselves to be among the country’s most striving residents.

There are two important lessons to take from these events. The first has been said many times: The president draws a significant portion of his political strength from campaigning and governing in open contempt of communities of color. That’s easy to see. But there is a corollary lesson that seems harder for some to accept: A significant portion of American voters also hold communities of color in open contempt.

From the start of Trump’s campaign, there’s been an alluring argument that his voters are driven primarily by legitimate economic distress, not white-male identity politics, and thus that progressives should appeal to them without centering this messy, annoying white-supremacy thing. Or, as liberal author Mark Lilla has more bluntly put it, surely the “slightly hysterical tone about race” on the left is the reason Democrats can’t win in the South and the Rust Belt.

Charlottesville truly ought to close this debate, though I know it won’t. The collective national reaction to Trump’s behavior these past few weeks has become sort of a set piece for the era. The first round of headlines and polling showed widespread rejection of the president’s equivocation on Nazis. Then, a closer look revealed a startling, if now familiar divide on what had seemed an obvious faux pas. A CBS poll found that 67 percent of Republicans approved of the president’s response to Charlottesville; NPR found that 59 percent felt he offered a “strong enough” rebuke of the violence.

But the real eye-opening data came in response to the underlying fight in Charlottesville, over the removal of Confederate monuments. The Democratic-aligned firm Public Policy Polling found that 71 percent of Trump voters “support” monuments celebrating the Confederacy—that’s a larger majority than even among those who oppose Obamacare. It bears repeating that these monuments were overwhelmingly erected in the late 19th and early 20th century, coinciding with the onset of the lynching that Equal Justice Initiative has documented. The two symbols—black bodies hanging from trees in the town square and Confederate statues standing at the courthouse—worked in tandem. They sent the same terrorist message. This historical point was repeated widely in both social and traditional media during the time that these surveys were taken.

“I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?” The vast majority of Americans were appalled when Trump added this thought to his post-Charlottesville tirade, but he knew his own voters well. In the Public Policy Polling survey, 45 percent of Trump voters said they would prefer Confederate leader Jefferson Davis over Barack Obama as president. Another 35 percent couldn’t be sure which man they’d prefer to lead the United States. Of course, this makes sense once you note that 45 percent also say white people suffer the most discrimination in the country.

If these views cannot be called racist, I don’t know what can. But I don’t say so just to pop off about it—naming the racism is necessary and satisfying, but wholly inadequate. The point is that the partisan divide right now is glaringly a dispute over racial and gender hierarchies—not over health care or taxes or trade, at least not solely. No amount of race-neutral, economic-justice rhetoric is going to satisfy someone who would vote for Jefferson Davis in 2017. That is an identity politics voter—a white identity-politics voter.

It’s true, of course, that you can reach them with a racist form of progressive economics. You can target a New Deal at white men, while carving out jobs held by women and people of color, drawing lines of exemption around black and brown neighborhoods, and turning a blind eye to the voter suppression that allows minority rule in broad swaths of the South. This approach has created electoral majorities for the Democratic Party in the past, sure. But we have arrived at this difficult juncture in American political history because those of us left out of progress refused to stand idly by.

So there is no road forward for progressive politics without confronting white identity politics. And perhaps that is not really a project for electoral politics at all. If progressives want to see a country where leaders like Trump are soundly rejected, we will first have to back up and do the long-avoided, scary work of leading truthful conversations about racism.

How does that work? I certainly don’t have all the answers, but at the risk of sounding “hysterical” about race, I know it involves owning the legacy of white terrorism. Not just taking down statues, but acknowledging why they were erected in the first place and how the violence that they announced shaped the nation we live in now. This is the point of Stevenson’s work. The Brooklyn Museum exhibit is a precursor to the larger project of building a memorial to the 4,425 lynching victims the Equal Justice Initiative has documented. It will be built in Montgomery, Alabama, where Stevenson notes there are at least 59 monuments and memorials to the Confederacy.

Just as the Confederate memorials were erected to accompany action—anti-black violence—the lynching memorial is meant to facilitate actual, not metaphorical truth-telling. There will be a pillar for each of the 800 counties in which the group has documented at least one lynching. Residents from each of those counties will be invited to claim their pillars, take them home, and begin local discussions about the legacy of anti-black violence in their communities. That’s a terrifying idea; the vast majority of these counties are solidly in Trumpland. It will certainly exacerbate the divide initially, maybe even draw the kind of violence we saw in Charlottesville. But white citizens who want to dredge their communities of the hateful morass in which Trump wallows will nonetheless have to bravely, publicly claim their history, knowing that the truth is the only thing that will set them free.

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